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Pentagon, NASA Say ‘Mystery Missile’ Was Airplane Vapor Trail

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An unidentified missile flies over Los Angeles Monday evening. (CBS)

An unidentified missile flies over Los Angeles Monday evening. (CBS)

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LOS ANGELES (CBS News / AP) ― Both the Pentagon and NASA concluded Wednesday that an airplane and not a missile launch was the likely cause of a large vapor trail in the skies off Southern California’s coast earlier this week.

CBS News on Monday evening videotaped the vapor trail that many viewers thought resembled the cloudy track of a missile in flight. But military officials said they did not know of any rockets being launched in the area.

Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Col. Dave Lapan said that officials were satisfied the phenomenon was an airplane vapor trail distorted by camera angle, winds and other environmental factors.

“All of those factors together leave us pretty confident that this was a contrial caused by an aircraft,” explained Lapan.

He said military experts studied the video and talked to all the government agencies that might have been involved in a missile launch and none reported having launched one.

NASA experts agreed with the Pentagon that an airliner likely caused the billowing contrail that resembled a missile plume illuminated by the setting sun.

Scientist Patrick Minnis of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia said he examined satellite images of a horizontal contrail recorded at the time of the sighting and concluded that it came from an airplane.

“I would conclude that the contrail was from an aircraft between 33,000 and 43,000 feet that left a spreading contrail that was wide enough” to be seen in the satellite imagery, he said.

“A missile could look like that, it could potentially have a contrail that shape,” added Minnis’ colleague Al Bowers, associate director of research at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert. “(But) the motion looks a little suspect to me, and my conclusion would be that, yeah, it’s most probably an aircraft.”

Mick West, who runs a website devoted to contrails, said he too knew it was an airplane the moment he saw the video.

“It’s coming more or less straight towards you and it’s in level flight,” said West. “It’s not climbing. It’s not descending. It’s probably around 35,000 feet.”

How can that be when it looks for all the world as if it’s climbing into space?

“The same contrail that looks like a rocket – from the side it, just looks like a contrail passing by,” said West.

On viewing the video of the mystery missile, West said he had an answer.

“I’ve got a fairly good idea that it was U.S. Airways flight 808 from Hawaii,” he said. “Honolulu to Phoenix.”

A webcam photo of flight 808 taken Tuesday evening compared to a still frame from the mystery video shot Monday evening looked virtually identical, according to West.

Missile and satellite launches are routine along the California coast.

The area of ocean perceived as the seeming liftoff point Monday night is in the vicinity of a Navy ocean range where missiles are often launched from vessels, platforms and San Nicolas Island.

Up the coast is Vandenberg Air Force Base, where satellites are lofted into polar orbit and intercontinental ballistic missiles are launched on unarmed test flights to targets thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean. Three ICBMS were launched between June and September.

Many of these launches are invisible to the metropolitan area, shrouded by the layer of moist marine air that often rolls in from the Pacific. Others are lost in the brightness of daytime.

But launches on very clear nights or at twilight sometimes trigger numerous calls to media or authorities reporting unusual sky sightings from hundreds of miles away, even from neighboring states.

No such spontaneous public response occurred Monday night in the greater Los Angeles area, suggesting that the image captured by the airborne camera was not apparent to ground observers.

(© 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. and The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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